With Bruce Jenner’s transition in the limelight and the recent, tragic and very public suicides of Rachel Byrk and Leelah Alcorn, most people are only beginning to understand the transgender community and address its common misconceptions and struggles.
So we sat down with Danielle, a transgender woman in her 50s who underwent gender reassignment surgery in 2009 and was willing to share her journey with us. Danielle was born with male sex organs and lived the majority of her life in the body of a man named Daniel.
As Daniel, she was married twice (to women) and fathered three children. Before transitioning to a woman and establishing her own construction business, she worked as an engineering consultant with a top security clearance for the United States Air Force.
When did you realize you identified as a woman?
As far back as I can remember. In my mind, I have always been female, but I had the physical body of a male. When I was a child, I was in very many ways like all other boys. I was physically a boy, but I also wanted to dress and act like a girl.
What were the biggest struggles you had to overcome?
Before I knew what I was, I felt internally like there was something wrong with me. I felt isolated and lonely because I didn’t know where I fit in or who to talk to about my feelings. I had a sense like I didn’t belong here. That was a tough time. I became depressed. And I was on the verge of suicide because I didn’t feel like I had anywhere to belong or fit in.
When I began to build confidence about who I was, the hardest part was relationships. You have to address people’s feelings because they don’t understand how you feel. It’s hard to do that when you’ve had so much tied up inside of you for so long that you have not disclosed.
For me, every relationship was put on the line when I told them. There wasn’t a single person within my friends or family who wanted me to transition. It was very difficult to overcome the social pressure. I didn’t want to lose people close to me, so I intentionally made it a long process. My physical transition was an eight-year period.
How did you feel after you transitioned physically?
It was a huge relief, like being pardoned from a long prison sentence. This — being a woman — is easy for me. Being a man was hard and uncomfortable work. I thought about gender issues constantly. It was a lot of effort to blend in and meet people’s expectations.
I have been taking hormones since 1997, so I have been acknowledged as a woman by the general public since about 2005. There’s a whole set of social aspects you have to learn and un-learn.
I wasn’t taught how to be a woman. I was taught how to be a man. You have to socialize yourself all over again. I completely and publicly feel like a woman now. It took a few years to understand the social aspects. Although internally, I feel like exactly the same person I have always been. I realize now it was not so much about becoming a woman, as it was not having to be a man.
Have you experienced discrimination because you are transgender?
The best example is when my daughter was on the wait list for a preschool in our neighborhood. It was a catholic preschool, and I didn’t think much of it. I had remodeled some of the houses surrounding the preschool, and I was friends with a lot of our neighbors whose children attended there.
They tried to come up with some pretty convincing arguments about why my daughter shouldn’t be allowed to attend the school. It was really discrimination against who I was. It wasn’t about my daughter.
When they rejected us, I wrote a letter to the editor at our local newspaper. They printed it, and then a reporter from the paper followed up and wrote a story about the issue. It made the front page, but they confused the term “cross dresser” (i.e. Simply wearing the clothes of the opposite gender) and “transgender” (i.e. Deeply identifying or expressing the opposite gender from what you were designated at birth).
People started commenting on the article as if I showed up to the preschool dressed for a drag performance. I was actually in a plain T-shirt, slacks, loafers, with no make up and hair in a ponytail. People made assumptions about my character, lifestyle and family. These are people who never met me. The people who knew me were making supportive remarks. To me, it was clear that this was the definition of prejudice.
Were there any scary or too close for comfort moments?
Overall, I’ve done pretty well. I escaped a situation in my college years where I may have been severely beaten or worse, murdered. I had been drinking and was engaging in some pretty risky behavior, dressed as a woman on a public street late at night. I had four guys jump out of a truck and chase me into the woods. I feel very fortunate that they never found me.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
I have no regrets. I just wish I had stood up for myself sooner. Part of me would have loved to transition when I was 30. I missed my prime! But I don’t regret it because I wouldn’t have my children today if that were the case.
How do you feel about Bruce Jenner’s story?
I thought it was very well done. It was personal. It was about him*. I like how he kept reiterating that it has nothing to do with who you want as a sex partner. It’s the same for me. You know, there is your gender identity and then there is your sexual orientation. They are independent of each other. That’s a huge misconception — that if you’re transgender, you’re gay.
Another thing I could relate to was how long he waited. People keep asking, “Why at 65?” I get it. He didn’t want to disappointment anyone. Neither did I. When you have children, you don’t want to make things hard on them.
*At this time, Jenner has not requested a new name or pronoun be used. Therefore, we refer to him by his current name and with male pronouns.
What advice would you share with someone struggling with their gender identity?
Going against the grain (what everyone wanted for me) and standing up for myself, I found that I didn’t have to take nearly as many losses that I assumed I was going to. In the process, I have gained so much. I am so much better off. I’m a better person and parent. It’s not even comparable.
I’m not going to say it’s an easy process because standing up for who you are rarely is. However, it was well worth it. Whether you’re transgender or not, be who you are. Don’t let people get you down.
There will always be people who are willing to support you. You just have to find them.
Ashley @ Planned Parenthood
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. This content is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice or an endorsement by Planned Parenthood. Check with your health care provider to discuss what is best for you.